Vol. 1 No. 6
This month ww2homefront.com is pleased to feature a guest editorial from Lessa Scherrer. Lessa is a freelance writer who lives in Wisconsin with her five boys: one husband, three sons and a very demanding dog. Her current projects include a web site and book on British War Relief Collectibles, and a novel about a German war refugee who joins the USO to escape being detained by her adoptive home country. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
with comments and questions.
The USO (United Service Organizations) is perhaps the most celebrated homefront war relief effort of WWII. Sometimes it seems as if our whole military effort was fueled on coffee and doughnuts from the local USO canteen, while some Hollywood celebrity provided entertainment. To a certain extent, this is an accurate picture. Coffee and doughnuts were easily the most frequently offered refreshments, but by no means the only one. Sandwiches on homemade bread, home baked cookies, turkey dinners on Thanksgiving and Christmas, even birthday cakes were provided to our men in uniform by the dedicated volunteers in USO clubs large and small across the nation. Dances were the most popular form of entertainment, some with hugely popular dance bands like Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, some with local orchestras, some with military bands, and many with records played on phonographs provided by the USO National organization.
He called together the leaders of The Salvation Army, National Catholic Charity Services, The National Jewish Welfare Board, Young Men's Christian Association, Young Women's Christian Association and the National Traveler's Aid Association. Each of these organizations had had extensive experience in military welfare, having worked independently in France with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. Agreeing to work jointly, they expanded the president's mandate, making it their mission to provide a "home away from home" not only for servicemen, but also for their families and for industrial workers dislocated by the war. The USO was designed as a public-private partnership, much like the government funding of religious charities that the current President Bush advocated when he took office. The government provided facilities and funds, the local organizations provided activities and volunteers to run them. Interestingly, the first president of the USO was W. Prescott Bush, grandfather of our current President. He was followed, shortly thereafter, by Thomas E. Dewey, former governor of the State of New York and later the presidential candidate narrowly defeated by Truman in 1948.
With the activation of Selective Service and the draft in 1940, towns around military bases realized they had a serious problem on their hands. On weekend leave (and almost all servicemen had weekend leave before Pearl Harbor), servicemen would flood the nearest town, looking for some way to blow off steam. A USO fundraising pamphlet from 1941 estimated the deluge to be 1,500,000 men in total. Often the only entertainments available to these men were bars, movies and other, less savory pursuits. The image of the soldier holding up walls or lamp posts became a common one, and local civic leaders knew drunken, bored young men in their town meant fights, crime and other trouble. They appealed to the military to find something for their men to do on their leaves. The military took their appeal to the government. President Roosevelt issued a request to the private sector.
The USO was hardly the monolith it seems from our present-day perspective. Rather, it was an umbrella organization which oversaw the individual soldiers' aid programs organized by its individual members. Federal money and plans were provided for club buildings, but activities were funded by the individual clubs. Organizational structure was loose, with each club likely to be run by only one or two of the member organizations. Often there were three or more clubs in the towns near Army bases, each catering to its own specific clientele. One club would specialize in lively entertainment, hosting several dances a week, sports tournaments, outings, etc. Another may provide daycare and be primarily a home away from home for the wives and children of soldiers stationed nearby. One may cater to the needs of women soldiers and military nurses. One might host special programs for industrial workers. In these, "Dawn Patrol clubs" were especially popular, providing round-the-clock dances, daybreak outings and entertainment for workers on all three shifts, especially those on the graveyard shift.
In her excellent book "Home Away from Home: The Story of the USO", Julia Carson tells of senior hostesses chasing down a new hat for a sailor newly arrived in San Francisco unable to report for duty without one. Another resourceful group of women baked, and delivered on skis, a birthday cake to a young recruit whose CO had requested an 18th birthday party for him while his group was on a train layover. Professor Everard H. Smith, historian of the Wilmington, NC USO clubs, writes of Senior Hostess who arranged last minute wedding receptions, witnessed weddings when no other witnesses could be found and even opened their homes to travel-weary wives and families when no other lodging was available.
The clubs were structured similarly to the USO as a whole. Each club would have a paid Club Manager and Assistant Club Manager, hired by the USO National organization. These two were responsible for overall goings-on at the club, from activities to plumbing problems. To them reported the various committees run by the Senior Hostesses. Senior hostesses were usually married women volunteers who ran committees, chaperoned dances, provided refreshments and solved problems for the boys on a case-by-case basis.
The USO dance was one of the most famous and most beloved activities provided by the organization. Senior hostesses provided supervision for these events, but they were generally planned and executed by a group of Junior Hostesses. These "USO girls" as we've come to know them now, would pick a theme, decorate the hall, plan and make the refreshments and then arrive at the appointed hour in their prettiest dresses, solely to make the evening memorable for the soldiers, sailors and Marines in attendance that night. A Junior Hostess was generally a single girl between the ages of 17 and 25. She needed to be recommended for the position by one or two members of the community (other than her mother). Some clubs required she be recommended by a Senior Hostess. She was required to attend classes which taught charm and deportment as well as how to handle a drunken sailor. She needed to attend these classes once a year, in some places, in order to continue being allowed to volunteer as a Junior Hostess. In return, she got to sew buttons and sergeant stripes onto uniforms; play endless games of chess, checkers, or ping-pong; write postcards; sing songs or whatever else needed to be done, for at least two hours a week. Some girls volunteered for more. All volunteers were awarded tiny brass pins based on the number of hours she had worked. A pin with no stars denoted 100 hours worked. One star equaled 500 hours, two stars=1000 hours, three stars=2000, four stars=3000, five stars=4000, and six stars=5000 hours. Although most volunteers worked more, a Junior Hostess working the required two hours a week from the inception of the USO in 1941 until the end of the war would have worked 490 hours (not quite enough for a one star pin). No wonder the five- and six-star pins are so hard to find!
Another time-honored picture of the USO is that of Bob Hope in a USO camp show. USO Camp Shows, Inc. was a division of the USO, though still its own entity. Headed by Abe Lastfogel, head of the William Morris Talent Agency, Camp Shows represented the combined efforts of all the talent agents, booking agents, theatre owners, movie studios and performers in the country. The idea of taking the show on the road to the Army camps originated before Camp Shows, Inc. was founded. Ed Sullivan actually collected Broadway performers and flew them up and down the East Coast on weekends to entertain the troops in Selective Service camps, beginning in 1939. So many show people wanted to help that Camp Shows, Inc. was founded in November of 1941, six months after the founding of the USO, as a way to standardize and match entertainment needs with the needs of Army Camp Commanders. A typical requisition read "Immediately, 5 people, mixed, male and female,--with star, if possible. Accordionist essential. Tropical climate, 6 months" just as they would requisition any other item. Camp Shows would match them up with an act or acts that were listed in their rosters and send the unit on its way.
By 1942, Camp Shows, Inc. was described as the biggest booking agent in the world. In its first six months of operation, Camp Shows furnished a total of twenty-four units which gave 3,791 performances to camp audiences totaling 2,217,968 men. By 1945, Camp Shows artists had given 273,599 separate performances to a worldwide audience of 171,717,205. To keep on top of such a monumental task, the Camp Shows, Inc. staff broke down their work into four "tours". The Victory Tour was the big show: famous celebrities or complete Broadway musicals with as many as 50 performers each on stateside tours to the largest bases. The Blue Tour was a Vaudeville circuit. A headline comedian would bring three or four other acts with him on a stateside tour of smaller venues. While the Victory Tour got the most publicity, most USO performers were not famous movie stars. These "unsung heroes of the USO" were often times paid for their work, though far less than they would have earned on the regular theatre circuit, according to Maxene Andrews and Bill Gilbert in "Over Here, Over There: The Andrews Sisters and the USO Stars in WWII".
Of the various circuits, the Foxhole Tour is perhaps the most famous. If you've seen (or read) "Four Jills In a Jeep" by Carole Landis, Bette Midler and James Caan in "Follow the Boys" or any of the Bob Hope Christmas Specials, you've seen the Foxhole Tour. The first overseas celebrity tour was actually not a Camp Shows production. Four Hollywood women, Kay Francis, Martha Raye, Mitzi Mayfair and Carole Landis toured England on behalf of the American Theatre Wing, a charity run by stage women, beginning in May 1942, just three months after our troops arrived there. (Their adventures are chronicled in "Four Jills in a Jeep".) It took Camp Shows another year to get permission to send units to England. However, by 1946 it had sent 5,424 entertainers overseas. Twenty-eight players lost their lives while on USO tour, primarily in transport plane crashes.
In 1944, Camp Shows inaugurated the Hospital Tour. This brought celebrities, singers, and dancers right into the hospital wards both stateside and overseas. Camp Shows also sent artists to the hospitals so that the wounded could have a picture made to send home. Later other groups copied this idea. A real Camps Shows portrait will have the name of the subject, the artist's name and "USO Camp Shows" in the corner.
The loose organization of the USO causes a problem for collectors. Since each club was basically autonomous, they often produced their own insignia, or wore none. The 1 inch square goldwashed sterling pins of intertwined initials USO were for paid staff members. The tiny (.5 inch) volunteer pins are brass with silver-colored stars, where there are stars. Obviously, the pins without stars are the most common. Junior Hostesses were usually called "Junior Hostesses" but some groups chose to call themselves something else. "Liberty Belles" was used in one club in Wilmington NC and in Dallas TX. There was a group called "Sprites" in Cincinnati, OH and probably many more who did not have special pins made up. Toward the end of the war, Foxhole Circuit players wore uniforms just unusual enough to make them look like a non-combatant. USO Camp Shows patches and collar insignia are frequently available in the collectors market as well. Ephemera, such as photographs, programs and flyers are also fairly common, though not always for name talent.
Despite (or, perhaps, because of) its lasseiz faire structure, the USO was able to minister to the needs of our fighting men in a way no single organization could. Though they closed their doors in 1946, they were soon called on again as America joined the war in Korea. They've been operating ever since, although now they send the likes of Sheryl Crow and Steve Martin instead of Dinah Shore and Phil Silvers. Even today, through its worldwide network of locally run canteens, the USO continues to meet its objective of providing a home away from home for those Americans who need it most. From Greenland to Pakistan to the military base next door, USO means a safe haven, a "little America", for our men and women in uniform and their families. They will continue to provide a home away from home throughout the "war on terrorism" and on into the new century.
The author is indebted to and would like to recommend the following sources for more information:
Andrews, Maxene and Bill Gilbert. "Over Here, Over There: The Andrews Sisters and the USO Stars in World War II." Zebra Books, NY, 1994.
Carson, Julia M. H. "Home Away from Home: The Story of the USO." Harper & Brothers, NY, 1946.
Coffey, Frank. "Always Home: Fifty Years of the USO, the Official Photographic History." Brassey's, Washington, D.C., 1991.
Smith, Everard H. "Victory on the Home Front: The USO in New Hanover County, North Carolina, 1941-1946." Unpublished, and conversations with the author, 2001.
An editorial note: To prevent duplication of effort, in 1941 FDR decided that the USO should provide recreation for soldiers in the states, while the American Red Cross provided recreation and services for soldiers in the field, as they had in the First World War. The Red Cross ran fourteen clubs in London alone during the war, and hundreds more throughout the UK. It was only three months after VE Day that the London Stage Door Canteen opened its doors. The Red Cross hit the beaches in Normandy the same day our boys did and established "future Red Cross club"s in every intact bunker and farmhouse they could find along the way. In some sense, many of the USO's activities were only copies of what the Red Cross was already doing to promote soldiers' morale. The USO has gotten all the credit because they had the celebrities and they were right here under our noses the whole time, while only the blood services and home nursing sections of the Red Cross were similarly placed. The American Red Cross is right now providing food, clothing and shelter for both the victims and the rescue workers in New York. In news footage, I have seen Red Cross Mobile Canteens at Ground Zero since September 12 dispensing cases of water and sandwiches to workers and to the families of the victims and the missing. They are running shelters and counseling the grieving. And, yes, they are providing blood and nursing care. All this takes money. Let's give them the credit that they deserve by giving them a little of our cash. http://www.redcross.org/donate/donate.html
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